SEATTLE – Ichiro Suzuki doesn’t play down rampant predictions that his Seattle Mariners – baseball’s winter darlings following the acquisition of ace Cliff Lee and others – are headed back to the postseason for the first time since 2001.
He just shrugs his slight shoulders and says, bring ’em on!
“We need even more expectations from here on,” said the perennial All-Star and Gold Glove outfielder, who has never won a championship.
Ichiro has seen expectations of all kinds in Seattle.
He arrived in 2001 as the first major league position player born in Japan, accompanied by relatively low expectations – compared to what he’s become. The second player to win the American League MVP and rookie of the year awards in the same season led the Mariners into the playoffs that year.
They haven’t been back since.
Now 36, the game’s hits king could be starting his last chance to win a title.
“I’m very focused on this season with this team. Because we made good moves, we get better expectations. And that’s what we have to play to. That’s something that we have to be aware of,” he said through an interpreter.
His Mariners have added Lee, the 2008 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, as a co-ace with last year’s Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez – though Lee has a strained abdomen that will likely have him on the disabled list into late April.
They have a newly re-signed center fielder, Franklin Gutierrez, who is nearly Ichiro’s defensive equal in the outfield. They have taken Chone Figgins and weakened the Angels, the team they are seeking to dethrone in the A.L. West. Figgins will play second base, part of a jewel infield that also includes former All-Star and defensive whiz Jack Wilson at shortstop and Casey Kotchman as the new first baseman. In one month of spring training, Kotchman left Mariners’ mouths agape with his glove and footwork.
Ken Griffey Jr. is back for a second, bonus year of his reunion in Seattle. The 40-year-old slugger’s most important job, beyond being the primary designated hitter following a second knee surgeries in as many offseasons, will be to temper and entertain combustible new left fielder Milton Bradley.
So far, Griffey is joking, Bradley is laughing with his eighth team in 10 years, and all of Seattle is smiling over the belief that first-time general manager Jack Zduriencik’s wizardry has turned a five-year rebuilding plan into a second-year resurrection.
This is a guy who in his first months as a GM, before last season, traded a Class A pitcher to Boston to get middle reliever David Aardsma. All Aardsma did was seize the closer’s job with 38 saves in less than a full season – the first 38 saves of a career that was nomadic until Zduriencik believed in him.
Aardsma is back for a team that set a club record with 35 wins in 55 one-run games in 2009.
“Obviously, there is a buzz about this team,” said Zduriencik, who already enjoys a star status in Seattle – fans bring signs of oversized dollar bills to Safeco Field featuring the GM’s smiling face and bald head under the words “In Jack We Trust.”
“You know, it is exciting,” he said. “But at this moment in time, we haven’t proven a thing. It’s nice to have a successful winter, if you will, but the way I look at it we are still the third-best club in this division. This game isn’t played in the winter.”
The last time Seattle had this many expecting this much was two years ago. Those Mariners lost 101 games. Ichiro sulked inside a bickering clubhouse. Seattle fired manager John McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi along the miserable way.
Why might this time be different? Because of who replaced McLaren and Bavasi.
First-time manager Don Wakamatsu has in just one season instilled trust in and among the roster and coaching staff. Zduriencik has rebuilt the organization upon defense, pitching, and statistical analysis.
The Mariners took a victory lap around their field following their 2009 season finale. They carried Griffey and Ichiro off on their shoulders. They drenched each other in beer inside the clubhouse. It was a most raucous celebration for a third-place team, one that was one of only 13 clubs since 1901 to finish with a winning record the year after losing 100 games.
Zduriencik keeps forging on. Eighteen of the 25 players likely to be in uniform Monday weren’t around two seasons ago for that debacle.
Wakamatsu talks so much about the “belief system” he’s built, his players are now mimicking him.
“Yeah, two years ago the expectations were high, but I don’t know that we had the belief system that we do know,” said primary setup reliever Mark Lowe, one of the few remaining from that ’08 flameout. “When it didn’t happen two years ago, we were not really all that disappointed. We didn’t really actually believe we would win. … Now, it’s us wanting to live up to them believing in us.”
Now, if he could only find some offense, Zduriencik could become the governor of Washington.
His primary No. 3 hitter is Kotchman, who has never hit more than 12 home runs in a season. The cleanup man is Bradley. The self-proclaimed bad guy, who told The Associated Press last week he is baseball’s Kanye West, hit a career-best 22 homers two years ago with Texas – but just got thrown out of Chicago after one season for hitting just .257 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 124 games. He started 2009 as the Cubs’ cleanup hitter but lasted just 19 games in that spot.
Put another, ominous way: Bradley has more former teams (seven) than seasons with at least a dozen homers (five).
“Obviously, you’re concerned,” Wakamatsu said of the offense. “But you don’t know until the lights go on. … We have a lot of talent there.”